Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Letran Knights: A Knight's Crusade

For the first time in five years I was not able to cover the NCAA. That was due to an extremely heavy work load. I did try to catch the games on TV when I could. Over the years, I had fun covering certain teams for Rebound magazine -- JRU, Perpetual Help, San Sebastian, EAC, and Letran. Perhaps more than any other NCAA team, it was the Knights I regularly wrote about. You can chalk that to a friendship I have with Louie Alas who I have followed since his days as an Adamson Falcon all the way to his aborted pro years to his career with Letran. This piece was written last season and appeared in an issue of Rebound so if it sounds just a little outdate then that is the reason. Hope you like it.

A Knights’ Crusade
The Holy Land is colored red and white. Letran’s reconquista is chronicled by Rick Olivares.

This must have been like when Crusaders set out to reclaim territory conquered by the Seljuk Turks. Inside the locker room of the Colegio de San Juan de Letran Knights, the team is into heavy prayer and reflection. The sign on the chalkboard reads proclaims boldly: “For the greater glory of God.” Religious music is played. And the players one by one say their prayers before they gird for battle. It is as if they are not coming back.

Then they rise, one after the other. They file out and the piousness of their face has been replaced by the seriousness of war.

And woe to those the victims of the carnage to follow.

A game against the Letran Knights is not just a game of hoops. It’s war. It’s blood and guts basketball not for the phony tough but maybe for the crazy brave. Letran has none of those sleek smart weapons like San Beda’s Baser Amer. Or one-man armies such as San Sebastian’s Calvin Abueva. What they have are chiseled gladiators like Jam Cortes or silent assassins like Franz Dysam.

The Knights fight with a ferocity of a man defending his homeland or trying to reclaim a lost prize. The lost prize that is the NCAA men’s basketball championship; something they have not won since 2005. Since then the NCAA has been colored red and white with the occasional gold of the San Sebastian Stags.

During the first round of Season 87, the Knights were defeated 71-62 ending their four game winning streak. Letran fell into a first quarter deficit that they were unable to overhaul. Complicating matters was the fouling out of Kevin Alas and Franz Dysam, Jam Cortes, and Kevin Racal all having to see extended time on the bench owing to fouls. But they knew. Letran knew that they could beat the Stags.

Outside the Red Lions, they were the one team that could handle the physicality of the Stags and dish out more. Publicly, Letran head coach Louie Alas complimented San Sebastian for their great start that was fueled by their Big Three of Calvin Abueva, Ronald Pascual, and Ian Sangalang who all scored in double figures. Privately, they couldn’t wait to play them again. They were confident that they could beat them.

However, leading into the second battle with San Sebastian, the Knights were waylaid by the Perpetual Help Altas who were mired in another nightmarish season. The bewitching 68-53 loss saw CSJL tumble to 12-3, a step further away from the crucial twice to beat advantage that the top two seeds get at the end of two rounds and leading to the Final Four.

“It’s a test,” ventured the elder Alas. “Our faith is being tested on how we deal with adversity.”

Alas is a tough coach. His style of play is a frenetic defensive pace where everyone is expected to give their body, mind, and soul to the cause. He pooh poohs players who are soft and frequently gets in the face of those who he feels back down in the face of pressure. “In sports you discover who you really are. It builds character so they say. Life is tough. And you need to be tough to get through.”

To the casual observer, he might have mellowed down now. Not so true. In practice, he is as feisty as ever. Come game time, it’s time to coach. The religiousness is not newfound although he admitted he is more demonstrative nowadays with his faith; one that he attributed to his wife Liza.

Following last season’s disastrous 7-9 record, there were calls for his removal in Letran never mind if he had given them three NCAA titles. You are only as good as your last win, some argued. But the Dominicans and team management retained him and he has rewarded their faith with one of the best seasons in recent memory.

Heading into Season 87, not much was expected out of them. It was the same crew albeit with a few additions. But once the season got underway, it was obvious how much the team had changed in a year’s time. Kevin Alas was finally the leader this team needed. Unlike the year before where his shot selection was poor, this time, he was on target. Plus, he had the much-improved Raymond Almazan to clean up the board and reject those foes who had gotten past Letran’s initial line of defense. There too was the tough Kevin Racal, a 6’1” undersized forward who played with fanatical defensive intensity and was a valuable scoring threat. And there was the diminutive Mark Cruz, the younger brother of former University of the Philippines point guard Marvin Cruz, one of the few not pillaged from their junior ranks. Cruz had given Letran a solid backcourt alongside Kevin and Dysam. And he played much bigger than his 5’7” frame.

If they wanted to pry the Holy Grail of Philippine college basketball that has long been held in San Beda’s paws, blood-stained with many a pretender along the way to four titles in five years to go with a stellar 81-12 record (not counting Season 87), they would have they would need a multi-pronged assault so that foes cannot key their defense on the younger Alas. But first they needed to leapfrog past the Stags.

In the return bout with San Sebastian, the two sides needed an extra five minutes to decide the winner as they battled through nine deadlocks and 12 lead changes. The match was tied at 34-all after 20 minutes of play and inside the Knights’ locker room, there was a sense that they had taken the Stags’ best shot. “If we can stay with them all the way to the end, they will begin to doubt themselves,” preached Louie Alas. “Boys, we have to BELIEVE in ourselves!”

The Knights erupted in unison. The clarion call was clear: “Bring on the Stags!”

The Big Three had another monstrous output and the Stags thoroughly outrebounded the Knights 58-40. However, Letran forced them into 23 turnovers that they converted into 22 huge turnover points. With Raymond Almazan, a huge reason for the Knights’ stellar showing this year, plagued once more by foul trouble, it was up to Kevin Alas to provide the points.

After Pascual hit a jumper off a screen to give SSCR an 81-79 lead with a little over a minute left in the extension, the younger Alas, left wide open from the rainbow arc, let fly a triple that found the bottom of the net, 82-81 CSJL.

San Sebastian had one more attempt at a game winner of their own, but they misfired. It was the first crack in the armor of San Sebastian. And not soon after, the Red Lions would home in on that crack.

Letran finished the elimination round with a 14-4 record. It was Final Four time and standing in the path of their reconquista were the Stags that were reeling from three losses in their last four matches.

The Knights had gained massive confidence from their second round win over SSCR. And once more after 30-minutes, the game was tied at 44-all. They had weather the early barrage and now it was their time to give back. Letran scored 26 points in the fourth period, eight more than the Stags for the final margin of 70-62. They were a win away from the Holy Land.

In the no-tomorrow Game Two, the Knights came back from a third quarter deficit of 50-41 to equalize at 55-all with 4:28 left to play. They would only score one more point as they misfired the rest of the way. It was San Sebastian that would go to the Finals after a 63-56 victory.

The Stags let Kevin Alas have his points – a game high 26 – but they shut down all the other Knights. The guns of Cortes, Dysam, Racal, and Almazan all fell silent.

The younger Alas could not contain his tears as the victorious Stags celebrated. They had come so close yet ended so far. Once inside their refuge, the elder Alas spoke of their faith had been rewarded with a great season despite the painful end. There were highly memorable wins and some crushing defeats. The time was now for healing and learning. For rebuilding and re-arming for next year.

There’s next year’s crusade.


When I re-read this piece that I wrote, I couldn't help but notice how the Knights faced up once more with San Sebastian in the Final Four and now San Beda in the Finals. Amazing huh.

1 comment:

  1. Letran Knights! One helluva' tough but fighting team! I like their physical but efficient defense , unpredictable but effective offense and "never-say-die" attitude! Probably , the Barangay Ginebra team of the "NC"! Great bunch 'tho they lost G1 of '88 Finals last night on a crucial turnover by KAlas!